The first theme of the day is hospitality.
This family from the First Reading does everything they can to properly host the prophet Elisha.
And Jesus in the Gospel praises, among others, those who “receive a prophet because he is a prophet”.
In fact, generosity doesn’t come from letting your heart be touched by the most atrociously desperate stories of the most miserable people. Stories that may manage, thanks to their dramatic nature, to win our consciences, which have become numb as a form of selfish defense: desensitized by a thousand requests, we’re accustomed to move on, unfazed.
No, generosity is confident, industrious, spontaneous, it doesn’t dwell on the implied burden. It’s even about gladly taking care of an illustrious guest, as a man of God can be, regardless of his condition, usually far from miserable.
Of course, there’s also a logic to be respected, in giving priority to those with serious or urgent needs… but notice how Jesus does not speak here of people dying of thirst or hunger.
No, make the small gesture of giving away a glass of water, and it becomes an opportunity to feel good together, united by kindness, as brothers…
There’s something for everyone
It’s not strictly necessary to accomplish something great, or to become a hero.
Maybe the beneficiary was a little thirsty on a specific occasion (consider also the climatic conditions in Palestine…) Maybe instead you gave a glass of water to one of these little brothers, who drank it just out of respect and not for a real need to quench his thirst.
Everything is Grace, even a nasty wine or the improbable anise liqueur you’re offered when visiting elderly neighbors.
What matters is the journey, the gesture that unites, and not the destination, the concrete need.
But then yes, the (self-)donation can also reach heroic, dramatic levels.
In fact, here’s Jesus:
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Say what? So… is it enough if I just offer a glass of water, or shall I get my throat cut in odium fidei, as a martyr?
Can’t we agree maybe on a middle ground?
As usual, he throws you off guard
Moreover, last week’s theme returns: Jesus creates division even within families: conflict should not be avoided. Sometimes you have to choose between God and your family: and behold, you have to choose God. However hard that is.
Maybe you didn’t see it from this angle when you listened to this passage or read it, but it’s a surprisingly odd list: it puts together
– tearing yourself apart, having to go against the people that are closest to your heart;
– losing your life;
– welcoming and hosting a man of God;
– offering a glass of water.
It’s as if in a shopping list we were to find a blue whale (whole, dry-aged), a mammoth (but make sure it’s fresh), a roast chicken from a deli and a single piece of candy.
It seems to lack proportion.
I like to think that Jesus started from the highest and most ambitious goals, saw the astonished faces of the bystanders and steered towards more palatable requests, to encourage them without scaring them away: there’s always something you can do.
The strong proposition angle
Why are these levels so different, including such tough requests?
Perhaps because life is hard anyway: if you can make it, you might as well try and prove that the most important (and difficult) game is worth being played for the glory of God rather than for a bloody dispute between neighboring countries, or to accumulate lots of money and get to live in a magnificent mansion.
Besides, it’s narrow-minded (and sad) to want to limit oneself, treating faith as an extra duty, to be satisfied through some formal passage (a prayer, a rite, a declaration, as Protestants typically do; once again, sorry but I had to insist), and then be done with it, back to normal life: hence no, we need to have the most ambitious goals set for us; perhaps unachievable. Raise the stakes, put everything on the line; give yourself fully, aim at becoming heroes, saints and martyrs.
But there’s also a whole spectrum of lesser deeds;
God doesn’t just ask us to shoot for the moon, even trying and doing something small is enough for him! This is the extraordinary thing: even for a small gesture there is a reward.
Because that’s how love works! That’s how love works!
Love doesn’t limit itself, but at the same time, love isn’t demanding. In being together, united, there’s room for all sorts of people, not having done anything special.
The important thing is to try to be good. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart.
Here, can you see it? We went all the way around and back to square one.
I was motivated to write these articles by the observation that so many sermons boil down to a generic moralizing punch, a “be good ye people”, and in the end here I am, saying more or less the same thing…
But even with all my limitations, I hope I have conveyed one concept: I didn’t take issue with the fact that preachers -in general- dealt with exhorting others to be good, but that they discussed this idea wearily, as something to be taken for granted. With the embarrassment of those who perhaps don’t really believe their very own rhetoric.
Hopefully, in my small way, I came up with a fresh, different perspective.
Uhm, being good, then…
Desiring good things to happen for others. Aiming at becoming somewhat good. Because no one is good except God (Mt 19:17). But you can try to love more.
Perhaps you can also learn, through significant effort, to become a sort of selfless simpleton, always willing to treat everybody as your closest friend, regardless of what happens behind your back.
Here, in welcoming and even in offering a glass of water, this being together is made present; and from the physical, concrete level of the Eucharist, of which we spoke recently, we moved on, focusing on an abstract interaction instead: one made up of ideas, words, gestures.
On the other hand, you don’t really see the Divinity which is present in the Host, while instead you feel the Communion, the mutual love… feeling good, together with your brothers and sisters: something that you can almost touch.
Yes, let’s focus on this side: feeling good. This too is “good”: let’s stop seeing altruism only from the side of the effort, let’s enjoy goodness.
The eschatological corner.
In the Second Reading the perspective is a little different, but there’s a clear connection: the figure of Adam summarizes the evil, fallen nature of man, which inevitably slips and sins; but Jesus intervened to free humanity from sin, and as a consequence from death.
What a mystery, this sacrifice that changes the very nature of things; so many reflections and implications! Right now I want to focus on the dimension of sharing, participating.
There’s a common destiny that is overturned by the love of Jesus, who takes our sins upon himself, like the literal scapegoat. But wait… how can we (we!) be justified by something that is actually done by Him?!?
By overcoming the limitations of individuality.
As we were all together in this life, sharing a common condition like passengers on the same boat, much more we will be united with and through Jesus, and as a consequence united with each other, participating in this good that was freely donated.
Good is communicated, transmitted, even more easily than evil.
Thanks to this communion, good is something that is built, by us all, together. Hence it’s also enjoyed by all, without setting any unpleasant limitations for those that “didn’t do much”.
At the same time, however, having done something more, something significant, represents such a great treasure! If we understand this point, there’s no way one could wonder if it was worth it, since putting very little effort could have sufficed. That’s true even if we don’t know how to visualize this marvelous fabric of Heaven, this dimension where everything matters, hence investing our lives in doing more has to be based solely on our trust in God.
But there’s one crucial passage you can’t skip: choosing the side of good. Even not doing much, but pointing in the right direction, towards God. We cannot go to Heaven reluctantly, or despite our refusals. We are literally free to go to Hell.
Therefore, in order to participate in this future Communion, we need to learn and choose, albeit imperfectly, the direction of our life and of our being: for the love of our brothers and sisters, desiring to be together, forever, with God.
For this reason any gesture, even a trivial one, may help us overcome our limits of individualist selfishness: focusing instead on becoming part of this new reality. Sort of a family, but way more than that!
The good we do to others marks and defines who we are, and projects us into the promised future dimension.
How shall I end this? There you go: it ends now.